We all think we know about standbys. We open our playbills, and offer a slight groan when we see that Joe What's His Face will be playing Steven Pasquale's part in today's 2:00pm matinee, but really, what we fail to appreciate in that brief moment is that Joe What's His Face has been preparing for this opportunity for months.
I recently had the privilege to assist on a Broadway show, and of course, the talent and generosity of the principal cast blew me away. However, the performers who ultimately rocked my world were the standbys, majority of who had previously appeared in leading roles on Broadway themselves. In this case, they had agreed to play multiple parts as opposed to just the one.
Many of them were responsible for learning the book, harmonies, choreography, and general nuances of up to three different characters, and they were, for the most part, completely unfazed by this supremely daunting task. They sat through long rehearsals, deep in concentration, taking copious notes in their ever-changing scripts, and then when everyone else took their fives or tens, these acting titans would leap on stage and run through every number they had previously witnessed. Screw lunch! They were making a musical, folks.
Now in most Broadway productions, standby rehearsals do not technically commence until after the show officially opens, but that doesn’t mean standbys are off the hook, because obviously, things happen. People get sick, and prior to our opening, one of our leads did. Her standby had to go on during previews with very little preparation or notice, and she did a beyond fantastic job! She was joyful, fearless, all the things! She was ready. I, on the other hand, would have thrown-up all over everyone and everything, but then again, I have the memory of a baby squirrel.
Standbys are, in my opinion, the epitome of theatrical performers at their finest. They’re not receiving the glory that the principals are, but they are memorizing, singing, and dancing their hearts out without ego or complaint. They are grateful for the opportunity, but more than that, they want to ensure that the show succeeds, that it thrives at every performance, and that every audience member walks out of the theatre hardly noticing that perhaps the cast was not exactly as advertised on that particular day.
So the next time you open your playbill, and one of those little white slips falls into your lap detailing, “…not at this performance…” please attempt to stifle that customary groan. Chances are, you’re about to witness the performance of your life.